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The challenges of flying in the Brazilian Amazon

Operating in the Brazilian Amazon region is not a simple or easy task. High costs and lack of infrastructure complicate the work of air transport companies.

By João Paulo Moralez

Operating in the Brazilian Amazon region is not a simple or easy task. The place is an inhospitable and gigantic environment. Germany, Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Denmark, Scotland, Spain, France, Greece, Holland, England, Italy, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Sweden and Switzerland fit perfectly into the 5.2 million square kilometers that represent the Amazon, or 60% of the Brazilian territory. They are more than 22 billion trees, some weighing 700kg (1,543lb) and 80m (262ft) high, and 15% of all surface water on the planet. The humidity is over 92% and the temperature exceeds 36° C (96° F) at certain times of the year.

These unique characteristics end up creating a complex situation when the issue is the locomotion of people or the transport of loads. Roads in the region are few, poorly preserved and lacking hotel infrastructure and service stations to support drivers. There are no railways, thus favoring two types of means of transport in the place – plane and ship.
The boats are versatile and have hundreds of thousands of kilometers of rivers where they can navigate and connect locations. But distances are often calculated not in kilometers, but in hours or days.
The plane, which should be the main locomotion and logistics transport vector due to its agility and speed in connecting isolated points to cities with better structures, is not fully exploited due to the lack of public policies that support the growth of air taxi companies flying in the region.

The demand for air transport is high, since the flow of passengers in the Amazon is seasonal, but it is mainly concentrated on logistics flights, transportation of people, rescue and aeromedical evacuation.
Currently, only seven companies serve the region with airplanes with a capacity of 10 to 30 seats, with the greatest barrier to a more efficient and greater sector being the lack of airport infrastructure that negatively impacts the entire operation.
Of the thousand existing runways in the Amazon, only 120 are able to safely receive aircraft with 10 to 30 seats. Of these, not all of them have a fuel supply, 80% are of land and many are short, not exceeding 1,500m (5,000 feet) in length.
To aggravate the scenario, these tracks are almost daily wet due to the rains that fall in the area, forcing the operator to fly below the load capacity that his plane would support so that landings and take-offs can be done safely. In some cases, flights need to be canceled.

The lack of infrastructure also impacts the operational cost, another obstacle for companies in this sector. Starting with the insurance of the airlines, which are more expensive, since the risk of damage to the aircraft is greater due to the precariousness of the places where they operate. It also ends up being higher expense for the exchange of components and elements that wear more easily, such as tires on dirt tracks.
Another obstacle is the cost of a liter of aviation fuel. While in the Southeast of Brazil the price of the liter comes out for USD 2.60, in the North region the value can reach USD 5.40 (USD 1.00 is worth about R$ 3.60). This occurs due to the lack of distributors and the need to spend on freight transporting fuel from São Paulo to the most isolated points of the Amazon.
Without government subsidies and sustaining a burdensome operation and with low profits, fleet modernization occurs slowly and the average age of the aircraft increases.

With older aircraft, the cost per hour of flight increases once fuel consumption is higher, longer maintenance, more expensive spare parts and availability for flight is lower, impacting low fleet efficiency. For that region, the most suitable types today are high-wing aircraft, turboprops and with the capacity to transport loads and people simultaneously and with low or no need for ground support for their operations.
Today, the Brazilian Association of Air Taxis (ABTAER) is working to promote the sector and create more appropriate public policies for its operation, seeking to expand airport infrastructure, reduce fuel costs and create ways to modernize and integrate new technologies for the taxi national air.

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